The Welshmen who explored abroad
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When Gareth Bale steps out for his first game in the white of Real Madrid, he will become one of a small band of Welsh internationals to play abroad. Yet, plenty of his nation's leading lights have tried to further their reputations on foreign soil.

John Charles has his name etched into the history of Juventus, and has arguably made himself the small country's greatest-ever footballing export. Claiming three Serie A titles and two Coppa Italia's during a five-year spell, the towering Swansea-native - who could play all over the field - was named as La Vecchia Signora's best foreign player of their first 100 years, ahead of the likes of Michael Laudrup and Michel Platini. He also appeared in Wales' sole FIFA World Cup™ visit while at Juve, at Sweden 1958.

Earning the nickname 'Il Gigante Buono' (The Gentle Giant), thanks to his 6ft 2ins frame and sporting values, he went through his time in Turin without a single booking to his name, before spending a season at Roma too. Following is death in 2004, former Bianconeri star Roberto Bettega said: “John was a person who interpreted the spirit of Juventus in the best possible manner, and also represented the sport in the best and purest way.”

Black and white revival
Charles' role as a Welshman in the Stadio Delle Alpi would be reprised 30 years later when one the The Dragons' most prominent face of the 1980's flew into northern Italy, in the shape of Ian Rush. Coming off the back of a double-winning year with Liverpool, the moustachioed marksman spent a season exchanging the red of Anfield for black and white.

Rush has always been candid about the difficulties of settling in Italy, with cultural and language barriers adding to a new footballing ideology to digest, but he has similarly been unequivocal in the value of his experience there.

“I don't regret going," said Rush. "My time at Juventus improved me in every way, both as a person and player. Most importantly, though, it means I can look back on my career and not wonder about what might have been.”

Another compatriot who headed for the airport with Liverpool fresh in his mind was fellow forward Dean Saunders, who joined Galatasaray at the behest of his former coach at Anfield, Graeme Souness, which was "quite an experience.”

My time at Juventus improved me in every way, both as a person and player.
Ian Rush on his time in Italy



He would lift the Turkish Cup there, scoring in both games to secure a 2-1 extra-time victory over Fenerbahce, which led to an iconic moment in Turkish football.

“I managed to smack the ball into the top corner of Fenerbahce's net  in the 116th minute to win the trophy,” he recalled. “There was a great picture afterwards of Souness planting the Galatasaray flag in the centre circle of the Fenerbahce pitch during our celebrations. A tad brave considering what the two sets of fans thought about one another.”

He would join up with Souness again at another one of Europe's top clubs in Benfica, amongst a sizeable British contingent which included fellow Wales international Mark Pembridge.

Mark Hughes is another Welshman to have explored foreign football, turning out for no less than Barcelona and Bayern Munich. While he admits he joined the Catalan giants too early in his career, the lessons learned in Germany during the 1987/88 are still aiding him today. “Bayern showed me how to prepare a team mentally and physically at peak fitness,” he said. “They were taking supplements and vitamins, working on injury prevention, diet and rehydration techniques. I hope I have carried some of those lessons into my managerial career. They opened my eyes to a different way.”

Indoor introductions
Some have spread their wings a little further from the valleys too. One of the more unusual locations was the Wichita Wings, where former Manchester United wide-man Mickey Thomas went to try his hand in USA's Major Indoor Soccer League.

“What an experience it was," he said. "It was something I didn't know if I was going to take to, but I have to say from the moment I got there I really enjoyed it.”

While adapting to the limited physicality of the league was an initial struggle, playing amongst a series of cult players in a completely unknown corner of football was quite an experience for Thomas. “I really got into it and we sold out 10,000 seat stadiums every game, but it was a great experience and I've got some fond memories from that time.”

Prior to Thomas, Tottenham Hotspur defensive stalwart Mike England, who was Wales' youngest appointed captain prior to Aaron Ramsey, finished his career in the indoor league with Cleveland Force. He also played over 100 games for the Seattle Sounders, back in their first iteration in the North American Soccer League, with Terry Yorath following on soon after with Vancouver Whitecaps.

Since then, Carl Robinson – who earned over 50 caps for his country – recently hung up his boots after finishing his career with New York Red Bulls, following an initial move to the MLS to join Toronto FC, while striker Robert Earnshaw is currently appearing for the Canadian outfit.

This follows a spell at Maccabi Tel Aviv, with Earnshaw in Israel during the 2012 conflict with Gaza, during which he would regularly see missiles in the skies above. "We were about to start training and we saw the interceptors - because you don't know where the rockets are launched from - go directly in the sky.

"It was literally right above us and they sort of blew up in mid-air,” he said. "That was a bit crazy because you could actually see it explode and then ten to 15 seconds later you hear the sound and the big bang."
While Bale can no doubt expect his time in Madrid to be eventful, the chances of him topping Earnshaw's trip abroad for adrenaline are quite slim.